Position Breakdown Series: Relievers Close It Out

By Todd Johnson

 

Out of all the positions in the breakdown series, relief pitcher is the most unpredictable. I don’t think anyone foresaw the phoenix-like ascendance of Dillon Maples last year to go from class A all the way to Chicago. One pitch can sometimes be the difference.

I went back-and-forth on how to organize this breakdown. First I was going to rank what I thought were the top 5 arms and then list of some potential breakouts. Then, I thought I had a great idea of putting them in categories until I thought about it some more. Then I went back to rankings. But after sifting through each affiliate, I began to wonder out loud how much more time the Cubs are going to give some of these relievers a chance to be a Cub. As a result, I wound up with four categories.

Kind of a Big Deal
1. Dillon Maples – Armed with upper 90s stuff and a devastating slider, he is technically not going to be a prospect very much longer. 2017 saw him harness his physical and mental skills to perfection at Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, Iowa, and Chicago. He does have closer type stuff but will probably be treated with kid gloves his first full year in Chicago.

2. Dakota Mekkes – The 6’7″ reliever from Michigan State dominated two leagues in 2017. For 2017, he put up an ERA under one and struck out 92 hitters in 73.1 innings. His deceptive delivery makes a 91 to 93 mile an hour fastball seem more like 96 to 98. The ball just sneaks up and creates a rushed decision. It should be exciting to watch him go at it in AA Tennessee this year. If he can cut down on his walks, the big league club could be calling very soon.

3. Jake Stinnett – After missing four months at AA Tennessee, Stinnett returned late in the season in a relief role and appeared to be reborn as a pitcher. He then went to the Arizona Fall League and did very well against elite competition. He always struggled as a starter in his previous three seasons as a prospect. Coming out of the bullpen, I think his stuff plays up a little bit better as most of his pitches have some sort of wiffle ball type movement to them. Along with Mekkes, he is going to be an interesting prospect and test case to see how the Cubs deal with just what his role is going to be.

4. Corey Black – Something Jaron Madison said at the Cubs convention has stayed with me for the past two weeks. In talking about Corey, Madison mentioned an “emotional maturity” that seems to bode well for Corey’s future. Now at 26 years of age, Black should be on the precipice of making it to the majors as Madison spoke very highly of Black’s potential and Madison was high on Corey’s 4+ MLB type pitches. If that’s the case, Black could be a guy. Sometimes an injury can turn your career around for the better.

Who the Hell Is This Guy?
Jhon Romero flew under the radar in the second half of 2017. He began his season in June at Eugene and ended up in South Bend. After Maples and Mekkes, Romero was this relief pitcher I enjoyed watching the most in August. He can throw 93 to 95 and has a beautiful tight breaking ball that just devastated hitters. He struck out 53 hitters in 41 innings and opponents only hit .109 against him. He should be at Myrtle Beach to begin the year.

How much longer?
James Pugliese, Daury Torrez, Ryan McNeil, Tommy Nance, Jordan Minch, Tommy Thorpe, Kyle Miller, Craig Brooks, Scott Effross, and David Garner
What we have here are several relievers who have been in the organization for at least three years, some of them going on six years. Out of this bunch, Tommy Nance has the best stuff. He throws a hard ball in the mid 90s and breaks a lot of bats. Hopefully, he can return healthy in 2018. Two players who came on strong at some point last year were Scott Effross and David Garner. Effross will be at AA and Garner will be in AAA, along with a spring training invite.

Breakout Relievers for 2018
Jake Steffens, Ricky Tyler Thomas, and Ben Hecht all were outstanding for Eugene last summer coming out of the pen. All three were also draft picks from last year. Steffens is pretty good sized guy with a natural sinking fastball while Hecht was a strikeout machine for the Emeralds. To me, Thomas has the potential and pitches (plus changeup) to be a starter, just unsure about his frame. He might get a shot to stretch it out this year. For these three arms, pitching in the Northwest League is a different animal than the Midwest League. It is usually a pretty good barometer or a pitcher’s acumen.

If I was to pick one more arm, I would go with Ivan Medina who was Mesa’s closer. I am sure there will be an arm that does really well that I did not foresee. There always is.

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The Cubs’ Bullpen Looks to Be Gutted

By Todd Johnson

Pedro Strop.
Carl Edwards, Jr.
Mike Montgomery.
Justin Grimm.
Justin Wilson.

Those names don’t exactly exude confidence to get the final three to nine outs of a game. After yesterday’s announcement that the Cubs did not tender a contract to reliever Hector Rondon, new pitching coach Jim Hickey’s job just tougher, a lot tougher. At over $6 million, Rondon’s contract was getting too pricey to just be a setup man. The Cubs essentially said, “Thank you for service, but no thanks for 2018.” As a result, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer now have their work cut out for themselves this offseason.

Originally, just Wade Davis and Brian Duensing had left via free agency. The Cubs now have to replace half their pen and add depth to stash at AAA Iowa, which appears to be well underway.

Since the end of last season, the Cubs have taken some flyers on some arms with minimal MLB experience. Righty Luke Farrell could relieve, he could start. He has 13 career MLB innings. Righty Cory Mazzoni has 16 career innings to go with his shiny 17.28 career ERA. Lefty Randy Rosario’s career ERA is a whopping 30.86 in just  2.1 innings. And this week, the Cubs signed 29-year-old lefty Dario Alvarez. He might be alright. He threw 16 IP in 2017 with a 2.67 ERA but also put up an unsustainable whip of 2.02. He walked 14 batters. I thought his signing was a little odd as Theo talked about adding strike throwers in his offseason press sessions. I don’t think that is what he had in mind.

After seeing those stats, I am not brimming with confidence. I am not in sheer terror either, but I am concerned. The Cubs will need to find a closer and a couple of setup men while adding depth at AAA.

Theo is going to have hit the free agent market and maybe use the Rule 5 Draft (Kohl Stewart of Minnesota is one name I like) as a cheaper option. Theo has been able to find arms in the past rather cheaply and I am sure he will again. In addition, I would not be surprised to see Theo make a trade for an arm or two rather than overpay in the free agent market or in an international free agent.

Here are some free agent names to look for to see if the Cubs are associated with or show interest in over the next month:
Brian Shaw, Brandon Morrow, Pat Neshek, Brandon Kintzler, Addison Reed, Juan Nicasio, Luke Gregerson, Fernando Rodney, Matt Albers, Tony Watson, and Jake McGee.

As for internal options…
Dillon Maples is close to being ready. While he has top flight MLB pitches, it is just a matter of controlling them. At 25, he now stands a better chance of making the 25 man roster. I always thought that Jen-Ho Tseng’s change-curve combo would play better out of the pen than as a starter. He could get that chance in 2018. While Rob Zastryzny is an option, but I don’t know if I see him as a long term option. Justin Hancock is another strong arm. He had an up and down year year for three MiLB teams in 2017, but he does throw in the upper 90s. David Garner finally made it to AAA in August but struggled in his one month there. He is going to need some seasoning at that level. One name I like is Tommy Nance. He spent all of 2017 injured. He reminds me of Brandon Webb in that he throws a “hard” ball that breaks a lot of bats. Nance would be a very longshot to make the team, but I could see him getting a shot later in the summer if all goes well with his health.

In the end, adding three to four more arms to a corps that struggled to find the plate in 2018 is a bit concerning. All last night I kept wondering if Theo would overpay for pen security or would he try to find undervalued arms somewhere. However, heading into day 2 of the Shohei Otani watch, rebuilding the pen could take a while as the Cubs do have more pressing needs at starting pitching. Once the Otani dust settles, it should be interesting to see how the bullpen shakes down.

Breakout Relievers for 2018 – Eight Arms Ready to Burst

By Todd Johnson

David Garner – Photo by Drew Gibby/Tennessee Smokies

Let’s cut right to the chase – the Cubs are not known for developing relief pitchers. They’ve only developed a few arms that have stuck with the team for any amount of time in the last five years and most of those came via the Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster trades. Kyle Hendricks, CJ Edwards, Justin Grimm, and Neil Ramirez all came over from Texas. Things are about to change.

In 2017 Dillon Maples broke out and went from class A to the majors in one season. He is set to compete for a spot in the Cubs’ bullpen in spring training. Pedro Araujo is another reliever who broke out last year while at Myrtle Beach. Pedro has been doing excellent in the Arizona Fall league and should be at AA Tennessee to begin 2018. After missing most of 2017, Jake Stinnett was reborn as a reliever and is also turning heads from the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League.

At AAA Iowa
David Garner – He has had one of the quietest rides up through the system. Last year, he advanced to AAA without much fanfare. As a setup man, he throws in the mid 90s and 2018 should be the year he gets a crack at Wrigley. Although, he only got in nine games at AAA in August, his chance at the big-time is going to come later in the year.

Corey Black – No, I haven’t forgot about him and I look forward to seeing how Tommy John surgery has impacted his career and what type of pitcher he will be. As a reliever, he’s only had 1 full season but only 30.1 IP at AAA. His recovery bears watching.

At Tennessee
Scott Effross – Part of me wants to see him start as he does have four pitches he can throw for strikes. Then again, with the second half he had last year at Myrtle Beach, he really put himself on the map with a 2.03 ERA in 44.1 IP. AA Tennessee is going to love him.

At Myrtle Beach
Jhon Romero – He basically got by on two pitches last summer but they were both excellent. Armed with a mid 90s fastball and a hard, biting curve, Romero could move quickly in 2018. He began last season at Eugene in July and was just dominant at two levels. I’m extremely excited to watch him pitch in his first full season.

At South Bend
Jake Steffens – It is hard to breakout in a half a season, but Steffens came close to it. His ascension to closer was definitely one of the surprises of the second half . He saw his stuff tick up a little bit from college. Now in full season South Bend, the Cubs should get a better picture of whether he can stick in the bullpen.

Ben Hecht – At times, this kid has a golden arm and you wonder why he is a relief pitcher to start his career. From southern Illinois, and at 6’5”, he was a strikeout machine at Eugene after struggling in his last season at Wichita State. He struck out 25 in 17.2 IP in his professional debut at Eugene.

Ricky Tyler Thomas – He started every year in college and he did it well until last spring. As a reliever, he was outstanding at Eugene last summer. He has a nice change up and when he can locate his fastball, he becomes even more deadly. Hopefully, his fastball will creep up a click or two this season.

Others to Watch at Eugene
It’s a little hard to project who will be at short season Eugene as there’s a lot of spring training and extended spring training for the young kids to develop and a draft to take place. One who might get some pub is Ivan Medina, the 21 year old closer for the Arizona Rookie League champion Mesa Cubs.

July All-Star Team Filled with New Faces Including 4 Draft Picks

By Todd Johnson

This was the month of the hitters. It was also month that was hard to narrow down to just nine position players. In the past, I have sometimes had extra hitters at a position and that’s what I went to this month.

On the other hand, it was a decent month for starting pitchers in the system. Big innings, slumps, and warmer air made the ball fly a bit more. However, 7 starters found their way onto the team.

As for relievers, there was bonanza of relievers in the middle of July. At least 15 Cubs prospects had ERAs ranging from 0.00 to 1.50. By the end of the month, that was down to 7.

A lot of tough decisions had to be made including whether to add some players from the Arizona Rookie League Mesa Cubs and a couple of hot hitters from the Cubs DSL 1 team. I decided against it this month as there were so many excellent performances at the upper levels.

The Friday Six-Pack – Tennessee’s Bullpen Is Getting It Done in July

By Todd Johnson

Daury Torrez – Photo by Sumner Gilliam/Tennessee Smokies

The Tennessee Smokies are right in the thick of the playoff race. Currently they hold a half a game lead over Montgomery for the second playoff spot in their division in the Southern League North Division. They were in contention with Chattanooga most of the first half before falling apart the last 10 days in a head-to-head series against the Lookouts. When the second half began, the Smokies hit the skids in late June. Now, they righted the ship thanks in large part to a shutdown bullpen in July.

Even though Dillon Maples was recently promoted (he was only at Tennessee for a month), there have been six relievers who have been the stalwarts of the pen in July. They have put together outstanding performances with most of them having ERAs under 1.00. Surprisingly, there is not a left-hander in the bunch. Yet, the Smokies relievers have been able to thrive.

For today’s six-pack, here are six relievers coming up big in the Smokies bullpen.

1. James Pugliese – Right now I’m a little perplexed as to why he is still at AA. For the year, he has a blank 0.82. In July, he’s been solid with a 1.00 ERA in six appearances. On the year , he has 37 strikeouts in 53 innings while only walking 22.

2. Daury Torrez – After converting to reliever, he seems to have found major success this year. Like Pugliese, he’s just been amazing out of the pen. For the year he has a 1.62 and, in July, he has been pretty solid as well with a 2.92 ERA in 7 appearances. His control has been phenomenal as he has only walked 8 batters all year.

3. David Garner – He is easily the most improved reliever this year at Tennessee. While it is his second year at the level, he has made dramatic improvements in his command. He’s learned that he can’t get away with mistakes. He has yet to allow an earned run all month and a strikeout totals have been outstanding all year at 25 in 25 innings. In July, he has a 0.71 WHIP and opponents are only batting .136 against him.

David Garner – Photo by Drew Gibby/Tennessee Smokies

4. Jose Rosario – He just came off the disabled list and on Wednesday night, he looked like the old Jose Rosario striking out three in one inning of work. While he has only made a few appearances, his time in Tennessee might be short-lived for someone who is on the 40 man roster.

5. Craig Brooks – Brooks came out of the gate this year firing bullets for Myrtle Beach with an ERA under 0.5. When he got to Tennessee, he struggled for the first month and a half before he figured things out. In July, he looks exactly like the pitcher who was at Myrtle Beach in April and May throwing upper 90s heat. This month has struck out 19 in 10.2 IP and has yet to allow a run.

6. Steve Perakslis – In 13.1 IP, he has allowed only 1 run in July while striking out 13. Normally, he’s been a slow starter in the first half and typically turns it on with the summer heat. He does throw in the mid 90s and is an interesting arm at age 26.

Fellow relievers Ryan McNeil and Brad Markey have been up and down this year with Markey sometimes doing some spots starts along with Pugliese. I do think that there will be some promotions coming in the next couple of weeks. One pitcher who could be coming to Tennessee is Dakota Mekkes, who has yet to allow an earned run at Myrtle Beach. Who knows, there might even be a lefty coming along with him.

With several doubleheaders in June and early July, it is a wonder this pen and these relievers are not burnt out. Somehow, their hard work has set the Smokies up for success in July. I’d like to think that some of them will get a shot at going to Iowa at the end of the month. Then again, Manager Mark Johnson may need them for his first short at making the playoffs at AA and winning a Southern League title.

*Thank you to Charlie Walter and Sumner Gilliam of the Smokies for the photographs

Cubs MiLB All-Star Team for July: New Faces in New Places

Mission Control 2

For July, there are lots of new faces on the All-Star team. In fact, 16 players who have not appeared made the list. A lot of players under 21 made the list. What prompted this change? Performance combined with opportunity opened a lot of doors for most of these players. Some just took a while to warm up, but with Eugene and Arizona playing their first full month of baseball, that accounted for 9 players on the list.

There were a lot of great months, but not everyone made the list. Both Trey Martin and Robert Garcia had excellent months, but the outfielders in the Cubs system are quite fantastic right now. Not one position player from Iowa made it on the team and only one made it from Tennessee. Arizona and Myrtle Beach each put two on the list, while South Bend and Eugene dominated the rest.

I struggled to find 6 starting pitchers with an ERA under 3. It was a not a good month in the organization for starting pitching. I was all set to put Jesus Castillo on the list, but then he got shelled in his last start. As a result, I dipped down to pick out someone who has been amazing in the Dominican Summer League all year with an ERA under 1.00.

Press play and use the arrow to guide or you can just watch

Next month, a couple of Dominican position players could sneak onto the list. Infielder Yonathan Perlaza and Outfielder Jonathan Sierra are two of the hottest players in the system the last 10 days. Then again I don’t know how Sierra could squeeze in between the outfielders in this list.

Other Players to watch for August

Albert Almora – now that he is back in Iowa, he makes the outfield much more interesting.

zack short 75 2016 eugChesny Young – he started to figure things out in AA and is slowly creeping towards .300 again

Trevor Clifton – he did OK this month, but I think in August he puts it back together again

Oscar de la Cruz – he debuted at South Bend with 7K’s in 4 2/3 innings

DJ Wilson – his average has risen 80 points in the last 10 days. He seems a little more patient and not trying to kill every pitch he sees. He’s actually quite good in the field and has been taking his walks all year.

Recent Draftees Michael Cruz, Duncan Robinson, and Zach Short are starting to figure it out as well.

Coming up with next month’s list should be equally challenging.

PHOTO CREDITS for Cards in the Film

Rikk Carlson, Dylan Heuer/Iowa Cubs, Larry Kave, Mr. John Arguello, MiLB, Janet Blackmon Morgan, Michael Caterina, Dustin Smith , Ryan Kang, Eugene Emeralds, Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Tennessee Smokies, and myself.

Cubs Prospect Stock Watch List – Lots of Prospects off to a Very Good Start

Originally, when I began this site 2+ years ago, I said I wasn’t going to have a prospect list. About a year ago, I changed my mind. I think it’s been a good thing for the site as long as I leave it alone for months at a time and only change it 2-3 times a year. I also like that I don’t have a top 30, 40, or 50 Cubs prospects. 21 is fine with me – there are just enough prospects where it’s easy to differentiate between their talent potential. I also don’t want to change the list every time a prospect has a good month. Most prospect list changes are going to happen slowly as prospects make adjustments to being a pro and a league that adjusts to them. It is more about sustained success and dominating a level.

What this new monthly post will do is look at which prospects could be moving up the Top 21 Prospect List based on performance and development. It’s meant to be a positive series of posts and not to denigrate, drag or put down other prospects. Each month I will examine prospects “on” the Top 21 list and prospect who are “off” the prospect list whose stock is going up enough to make a case for getting “on” the list.

This month, several prospects are off to a very good start in the regular season and some are coming off an outstanding spring training. Some have been pretty streaky, while others have not. The weather has not been the most cooperative for Iowa and South Bend. Meanwhile, Tennessee and Myrtle Beach have not been bastions of warmth, either. As the weather stabilizes, and then warms, performances should change for some of the Cubs better known prospects.

Prospects On the List Doing Well…

Willson 82 2016 Iowa↑ – Making waves on the list is the number two prospect, Willson Contreras. Currently, he is hitting .400 with an OBP of .455. And after nine games, he’s pretty consistent at the plate and his defense is outstanding.

↑ – Dan Vogelbach’s ability to be a very polished hitter has to make him an attractive asset for the Cubs on the offensive side of the ball. Currently, he is hitting .387 and last night he jacked his first HR of the year.

↑ – Albert Almora is slowly making his way to .300 after a rough start. Sitting at .280 is a nice place for him, considering how good his glove is. There is no doubt in my mind, that with the spring he had in Mesa, that his glove will be in Chicago in October. The question is, will his bat be ready?

↑ – Mark Zagunis might be the quietest prospect in the organization. He is hitting .304 and walking, but not as a prodigious rate as last year. After Friday’s game, his OBP was only .360. It’s early, but to see the average that high is a good thing.

↑ – Donnie Dewees is Mr. Excitement for South Bend, Usually, but not always, he has been in the leadoff spot. He is a triples machine and he makes that offense go. He is hitting .406 with 4 triples in only 8 games. FYI – That projects to 72 triples for a season.

↑ – Dylan Cease pitched three innings in extended spring training today. He’s gone four innings a couple of times before. I like the fact he is going longer and longer. While today was only 42 pitches, he is building up endurance in that arm. I hope that by mid-May he is in South Bend when it gets warmer, but the odds say Eugene in June.

↑ – Bryan Hudson – I think he goes to Eugene, but I don’t know if it will be that much of a test for him. After two starts there, we should know if he is too much for that level. Right now, in extended spring, he is throwing the ball like it’s a wiffle ball and just baffling hitters.

Prospects Off the List Making a Case…

↑ – Bijan Rademacher and his .524 average are making a case to play every day at Tennessee or move on to Iowa. The 25 year old left handed hitter is in his second go around at Tennessee and is trying to squeeze into an outfield with Mark Zagunis, Jacob Hannemann, and Billy McKinney, not an easy task.

skulina 68 2016 tn↑ – Tyler Skulina has been really good for a full year, when he is healthy. He regained some of his velocity after a bout with tendinitis in his plant knee and is now throwing in the low to middle low 90s nightly. He seems to have made the jump AA pretty smoothly so far. After two starts, his ERA is 2.45.

↑ – Paul Blackburn is making a push to get to Iowa first before anyone else. In two starts, he has been filthy mixing his pitches, moving the ball in and out, and showing the promise he had at Boise in 2013. A 0.82 ERA is pretty sufficient.

↑ – David Garner is more than likely to be one of the first players promoted in the next 6 weeks. His mid 90s fastball and command of said fastball have been dominating at AA. In 3.2 innings, he has struck out 8 and has yet to allow a run. Then again, he has given up just one hit. He is a long shot to get to Chicago this year, but he also might be the best reliever in the system.

↑ – Rashad Crawford has been pretty streaky this year, but he is flashing some power in his bat and his additional muscles make him a deadly hitter at Myrtle Beach where he is currently hitting .300 as their leadoff hitter.

↑ – Dave Berg – It is hard to believe that I put two relievers on this watch list. Berg surprisingly was assigned to Myrtle Beach this year and in 3 outings he has been nothing short of stunning as he has allowed one base runner this year.

marte 2016 st 68↑ – Junior Marte is not going to be at South Bend this year. But the young 20 year old is throwing 92-94 in extended spring and could be one of the breakout prospects of the summer.

↑ – Jose Albertos. He’s just 17. The 2016 international free agent signee out of Mexico has been dazzling this spring. If he shows up in the Arizona Rookie League this summer, that would be a first for the Cubs. In the past few years, the Cubs have put their top young international free agent pitchers in the Dominican Summer League rather than the Arizona Rookie League. The preciousness of Albertos’ arm should be an interesting story to follow between now and June.

With several prospects off to slow starts, May’s Prospect Stock Watch could be much different if Ian Happ, Eloy Jimenez, and/or Eddy Martinez get it going. The fun “watch list” to watch, though, might be in July when prospects like Darryl Wilson, Bryan Hudson, and Wladimir Galindo get a month of play in along with some new draft picks, international free agents, and young rookies in the summer leagues. I think this is going to be an interesting series of articles to follow over the course of the year.